UK fishing: deal or no deal

The only viable option appears to be an agreement that sounds like ‘taking back control’, but changes very little.

As anyone who has been reading the NEF blog over the past few years will recognise, fisheries – while only making up a tiny part of the UK economy – has developed totemic status in the UK’s Brexit narrative and remains one of the major obstacles to a UK-EU deal.

In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, it was impossible to avoid hearing about fisheries and Brexit and the oft-repeated soundbite of taking back control” of our waters. This fits a portrayal of the UK as an island nation with a proud maritime heritage, so fishing has become the posterchild for a new chapter outside the EU. Brexit was sold to the public and fishing industry as a sea of opportunity” by politicians and industry bodies alike. It wasn’t convenient for Brexit advocates to focus on the downsides of leaving the single market and customs union in any cost-benefit analysis.

Since the dim and distant days of the referendum, our research has shown a sea of risks for the majority of fishing fleet in the UK, with Brexit likely to create more losers than winners when it comes to fishing. The House of Lords European Union Committee was extremely clear in December 2016, that if the UK fishing industry as a whole is to thrive post-Brexit, it will need to continue to have access to EU markets. The majority of UK-caught fish and shellfish ends up in the EU. The total volume of the UK’s fish exports to the EU, including fish and shellfish, amounted to 342,000 metric tons in 2018 – so the impacts of tariffs and non-tariff barriers are extremely significant.

But due to the influence of money in politics and the media, the media coverage was skewed by powerful fishing lobbyists (as our analysis showed), who were quoted time and again, without any attention being paid to those who stood to lose out.

For this reason, we went to fishing ports around the UK to try to provide a voice for those who were most at risk, marginalised in the discussion, the politics and the media. We made a video in 2018 and took their voices straight to Westminster for a cross-party event.

Up until September of this year, lobbyists for the large-scale fishing fleet (representing mainly quota owners and those fishing for quota species, who are more likely to benefit from Brexit) were pushing the government to stand firm for fishermen, by refusing to compromise on EU fleets’ access to UK waters or status quo when it comes to quotas. Although by this point, international fishing industry commentators were already very clear about the risks of not having a fisheries agreement in place, both for the sustainable management of fisheries and for a sustainable industry.

Now, in November 2020, the tune is starting to change. The penny is clearly starting to drop.

The government guidance on exporting seafood to the EU is unworkable, and fishing industry leaders shared their concerns in a letter to the government, stating that the guidance places an unrealistic administrative burden on fishers who used to be able to sell their fish to the EU easily. The Financial Times has reported that there would need to be four times as many people involved in filling out the paperwork as there were working as fishermen. French fishing interests aren’t going to retreat without a fight and the narrative around who is to blame for the apparent plight of the UK fishing industry is also shifting away from them catching our fish’ to we sold them the rights to catch it’. 

But with time running out and project fear becoming project fact” we don’t have the luxury of time. If the government fails to get a deal with the EU, a no-deal Brexit will be the final nail in the coffin for the struggling fishing industry. It would cause immense problems for fishers who export to the EU, and those who fish for shellfish outside of the EU quota system. Suddenly, the bullish narrative of the Brexit referendum has shifted. The costs to fishers are finally being recognised and concerns all over the UK are coming to the fore.

A deal now looks more likely, as the consequences of not having access to the main market for seafood would be cataclysmic for an industry already heavily impacted by Covid-19 and its impacts on seafood markets, restaurants and pubs.

The most extreme Brexiteers are now clutching at straws as the reality of no deal can no longer be ignored, with suggestions that our coastal communities will be rebuilt on the strength of their ability to use fish guts’ in pharmaceuticals (despite the fact that the EU has already been working on this, and that the UK could do it far more effectively with international support).

So, many years down the line and approaching the final days of negotiation the only viable political option appears to be an agreement that sounds like taking back control’ but really doesn’t change the status quo all too much. This would mean the UK civil servants and large-scale fisheries lobby can both be happy and a tale can be spun to say that the deal was reached to protect the small-scale fleet from a disastrous no deal.

Taking back control, to change nothing, isn’t really that catchy – but looks like the least worse option.

Image: Pexels

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